Addicted Doctors Allowed to Treat Patients by Many State Medical BoardsDec 19, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP Drug and alcohol addicted doctors are not barred from practicing medicine, even when state medical boards have confirmed their substance abuse problems. Most states have confidential substance abuse rehab programs allowing physicians to continue practicing medicine as long as they continue treatment; as many as 8,000 doctors may be in such programs. These arrangements remained under the public radar until California's medical board ended its program when a review concluded the system failed to protect patients for medical malpractice or help addicted doctors. Opponents say the medical establishment uses confidential treatment to protect dangerous physicians.
Doctors accused of botching operations while in treatment have led to criticism of programs that allow physicians to keep their addictions confidential. Most addiction specialists favor allowing doctors to continue practicing while in confidential treatment, as does the American Medical Association. Supporters say patients harmed by doctors in treatment are rare and would pale next to leaving physicians no such option. "If you don't have confidential participation, you don't get people into the program," said Sandra Bressler, the California Medical Association's senior director for medical board affairs.
California's program ends June 30. If an alternate is not adopted, rules could revert back to the zero-tolerance policy in place when doctors with substance abuse problems were stripped of their licenses. Between 10-15% of physicians nationwide will have a substance abuse problem at some point in their lives, similar to that of the general population.
Some doctors in programs have been accused of harming patients. In Montana, a patient accused a doctor of not following up on her abnormal test results, delaying her cancer diagnosis by over a year. Montana revoked Dr. Robert Schure's license last year after he flunked out of treatment six times since 1994. A North Carolina surgeon charged patients for one type of gastric bypass but performed a shortcut leading to serious complications. Dr. Brian West, a Long Beach plastic surgeon performed a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction on Becky Anderson leaving her with gaping, infected wounds that wouldn't close and a large lump from organs spilling through an unhealed abdominal wound. Weeks before performing his final procedure on Anderson, he was arrested for a drunken-driving accident. After his conviction, West entered the diversion program for alcoholism and a year later he performed a tummy tuck on a 37-year-old woman that healed poorly. He flunked out of treatment when investigators uncovered a pattern of relapses, binge drinking, and doctored urine tests. An alcoholic obstetrician came to work and delivered a baby while dead drunk, severing the newborn's spine.
Some feel without confidentiality addicted doctors will go underground to practice. Jim Conway, a California substance abuse counselor, said that before confidential programs, doctors would do whatever they could to hide addictions fearing they would lose their licenses. Dr. Jason Giles, a Malibu physician, completed California's program in 2004 after five years in treatment. "I was never intoxicated taking care of patients. It didn't get to that—but would have if I didn't avail myself of that rope dropped from the helicopter," he said. His experience in rehab was so transformative that he opened the drug treatment center he now runs. Giles feels allowing physicians to continue to practice while in rehab is crucial to treatment success.